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Div. of Media Relations
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July 13, 2001
Contact: CDC, Division of Media Relations
(404) 639-3286

Press Release

CDC finds exposure to suicide protective in some circumstances

Under certain circumstances, exposure to suicidal behavior may protect individuals from attempting suicide. The new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study finds that in some cases being acquainted with someone who has committed suicide or being exposed to suicide in news, books or films may actually decrease the risk for suicidal behavior. This study compared individuals who survived nearly lethal suicide attempts in Harris County, Texas with a sample of residents living in the same county.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death for Americans 15 to 24 years old; it is the second leading cause of death for 25 to 34 year olds. Suicide is among the top 10 causes of death for all Americans 10 to 64 years of age. Each year more than half a million Americans attempt suicide; 30,000 of them are successful. In the United States, suicides outnumber homicides by three to two.

CDC researchers conducted first-person interviews with individuals who survived nearly-lethal suicide attempts. These cases included persons 13 to 34 years of age who probably would have died without emergency medical intervention, or who used a highly lethal means of attempting suicide such as a gun or a noose. Researchers found no evidence that exposure to the suicidal behavior of others is a risk-factor for nearly-lethal attempts.

"Suicide is a complex public health problem. Evidence exists that in some circumstances suicidal behavior may be 'contagious.' However, we found that exposure to the suicidal behavior of friends and acquaintances actually reduced the likelihood that those who were exposed would engage in very serious suicidal behavior. Our findings also suggest that this reduction in risk was most prominent when study participants did not feel emotionally close to the person to whose suicidal behavior they were exposed," said Jim Mercy, Ph.D., of the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, and primary author of the study.

"The findings from this study are compelling because the research is based on first-person interviews with people who survived a suicide attempt. Other studies have relied on information in official records such as death certificates or accounts provided by surviving friends or relatives of the victim," said U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher.

The Surgeon General released a National Suicide Prevention Strategy in May 2001. Calling suicide prevention "everyone's business," the Surgeon General said, "Suicide is a preventable problem with realistic opportunities to save many lives. Each member of the community has an important role in turning the tide of suffering and disability caused by this under recognized public health problem."

The CDC's tightly-controlled study was based on interviews with 153 survivors of near-lethal suicide attempts in Houston, Texas. Researchers controlled for such known risk factors as depression, alcoholism, a recent move, upsetting end to a relationship, exposure to a non-suicide death, and demographics in order to isolate the effects of exposure to the suicidal behavior of others on nearly lethal suicide attempts.

"This startling finding needs more study," Mercy said. "Surveys show that from half to three- quarters of the American population is exposed to the suicide of someone they know. When we consider widespread news coverage which increases the opportunity for exposure to suicide, we clearly need more information to understand how to maximize any potential protective value from these tragic events," he said.

Among the goals of the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention is to improve the reporting and portrayal of suicidal behavior in entertainment and news media.

CDC protects people's health and safety by preventing and controlling diseases and injuries; enhances health decisions by providing credible information on critical health issues; and promotes healthy living through strong partnerships with local, national and international organizations.

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Note: Interactive media teleconference, July 13, 2001 from 11 AM EST until NOON. Discussion of the new CDC study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, July 15, 2001 edition. "Is Suicide Contagious? A Study of the Relation between Exposure to the Suicidal Behavior of Others and Nearly Lethal Suicide Attempts." Toll-free conference line number is (800) 8574151. Teleconference name: Suicide. (Replay tape will be available 1 hour after the telebriefing through July 18, 2001, 5 PM, EST at (800) 7212049)

The article "Is Suicide Contagious? A Study of the Relation between Exposure to the Suicidal Behavior of Others and Nearly Lethal Suicide Attempts." is available online at http://www.aje.oupjournals.org/cgi/content/full/154/2/120

For additional information from CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control visit: http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc

For the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention: http://www.mentalhealth.org/suicideprevention/


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